I had an email recently from a regular reader whom I’ve had the good fortune to become friends with in person through some of my European trips over the last 15 months. She is about to take up her first chorus director position in the new year, and had an excellent question, which she correctly diagnosed as the kind of thing it would be useful to share here.
I’ll quote her at length, because she has done a good deal of the analytical groundwork for us, so I can get straight onto the pragmatics:
One of the central takeaway messages for me from both the German and the Dutch harmony college this year was that performance is fundamentally different from rehearsal. During rehearsal you may focus on technical stuff whereas during performance you have to accept the technical level of singing that you're at and essentially forget about the technical stuff. Performance was characterized by having fun, staying in the moment, trying to connect with the audience and so on.
In preparation of working with my new chorus next year, I was wondering if it might be useful to practice actually getting into that specific performance mode. Because I sort of have trouble letting go of rehearsal mode and getting fully into performance mode, and I suspect that the fact that I have much more rehearsals than performances might have something to do with this. And if it is useful to practice performance mode, what would be the best way to go about it?
So, the first place I pointed her to was my post on the Manager and the Communicator. When you go on stage, you want the Manager there with you, but it just needs to sit in the corner unless/until there is some trouble-shooting to do. If everything is going swimmingly, it’s the Communicator’s job to perform and the Manager can just sit quietly, available if needed, but keeping out of the way.
But as this email suggests, this process of handing over is something we need to practise if we are to become fluent at it. Here are some suggestions for rehearsal tactics to help:
- Use the space in front of the chorus to articulate the difference between rehearsing the detail and making music. This is an idea I learned from Bill Rashleigh, who demonstrated standing in a little nearer to the chorus for interventions, and then taking a spot a couple of paces further back to run passages. He did sometimes make some discreet enforcements in his gestures as reminders of the work just done, but the focus in that position was primarily musical rather than didactic gestures.
His rationale was that the shift of position helped both chorus and director shift fluently between left-brain, analytical mode and a more holistic musical engagement.
- Rehearse the starts of songs only. This focuses everyone’s attention on how you create the mood of each song from the get-go. And how you start a song has a huge impact on how you continue it. Within your current collective skill level there are potential performances that are a bit wobbly and/or ordinary, and there are performances that sparkle with delight. Giving special attention to finding that place where head, heart and voice are working well together so you can do it at will sets you up for the whole song.
(This also cures the issue of only really getting into the song a couple of bars in...)
- Integrate technical and communicative elements during your rehearsal process. Wherever possible, root a technical instruction in an expressive effect that it will serve. This is an efficient rehearsal technique anyway, since people are more successful in following instructions that come with meaning attached, and more likely to retain changes in which they are emotionally invested. But it also builds the bridge between Manager and Communicator functions so that the handover between the two doesn’t feel like a crunching of mental and emotional gears.
Use visualisation exercises starting a good month or so ahead of a performance. Have everyone play the performance of a song in their head, including the applause before and after it, and imagining it in situ in the kind of performance space you will be appearing in. This by itself is a useful exercise; you can also follow it up by immediately running the song in performance mode, linking visualisation with role-play.
You’ll notice that most of these suggestions have benefits for both director and singers. For, while the two roles are distinct in terms of their respective actions in rehearsal and performance, they are both interdependent parts of the same ensemble, bound together by the shared musical flow they create. As a director, you can often develop the skills you need yourself by devising strategies to help your singers learn them too.